Sunday, January 22, 2012
One upon a time, radio was the ‘new media’. When black-and-white television arrived, it brought a whole new experience in communication. The advent of colour television rooted viewers to the drawing rooms in many Indian homes. When CNN beamed the Gulf War live in 1991, it heralded a new dawn in terms of television viewing experience. And then, of course, the Internet changed human habits like never before. Yet, the newspaper continues to hold out. At a seminar on new media in Kolkata, some pertinent points affecting news dissemination were made, with Ravindra Kumar, editor and managing director of The Statesman, driving home some truths: there is a cost involved to effective news gathering, there has been a steady breakdown in professional standards, the institution of the editor has been destroyed.
“Pick up on things that interest you so that your understanding of what happens is focused rather than diffused by an overload of information.” That was Kumar addressing students of the Surendranath College for Women, who formed the bulk of the packed audience at the inaugural of a seminar in Kolkata in January titled ‘Journalism in the age of New Media’. Picking up on thoughts shared earlier (by the other speakers), Kumar, the chief guest, having been in the journalism for more than three decades, said that if he were in their shoes today he would be hugely confused (because of the media explosion).
“If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys,” Kumar stressed, pointing out that there was a cost involved in providing credible, worthwhile information. “You are paying peanuts, therefore you are getting monkeys,” he emphasized again, going on the explain: “You’ve had a monkey in the form of the Nira Radia affair, and monkeys in various forms and sizes. Unless the citizenry decides to engage itself with the process of dissemination – and I don’t mean each one of you being a citizen journalist, you’d be falling over each other… You have to be engaged in the process in the sense that you must understand what drives a news or media organisation or whether you can repose your faith and trust in that media organisation. The problem with media explosion as we call it is that everybody is groping for a revenue model, including those who practise conventional media, like newspapers. And surely, if you are looking for accurate news, well-edited copy, well-produced newspapers, articulate television channels which give you a multiplicity of opinions and then ask you to choose, if you do not wish propaganda to masquerade as news, then you must appreciate that there is a cost involved to effective news gathering, in having a reporter check, double-check and cross-check his facts, to have a fact checker within a media organisation. And what is the cost that you wish to pay? You wish to pay indirect costs; you wish to merge the cost that you pay to be educated, or to be informed or to be presented with analysis, you wish to merge that cost with the cost you are quite happy to pay for entertainment.”
Referring to the raid on Osama’s hideout, Kumar said neither social media nor conventional media had to this day been able to provide the complete inside story of what really happened on that raid, who the source was, where the information came from, how it was planned, who the people were. “It leaves you with a frightening thought: whether in the process of embracing multiplicity of media, we are in qualitative terms emasculating every media. Why? Because we have gotten used to paying peanuts.”
Kumar drew a comparison between the evolution of cost, of consumer products and the newspaper. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, for example, cost 12 annas once; today, the same tube costs Rs 25. Cinema ticket prices have soared more than hundred-fold over the years – from Rs 3.50 to anything between Rs 350 and Rs 500. All this, while the newspaper still sells at Rs 2.50 paise or thereabouts. Why is the cost important? “Even to this day, it is the print media which has the maximum number of professional journalists out in the field. Whether in Raipur or Dantewada or Chhattisgarh, the majority of news stories are still broken by print and if they are important they are picked up by television and then they reach a national audience. If you analyse, some of the big stories that have not come out of Delhi – Delhi is a city that thrives on leaks – if you are talking about genuine news breaks, the majority of them are still coming out of print. Perhaps in some obscure newspaper you haven’t heard of… By effectively trying to analyse its (story’s) implications, print comes back into the story.”
Over a period of 20 years through a gradual process, largely self-inflicted by media owners, as a consequence of an active collaboration of the reading community, there had been a steady breakdown in professional standards, Kumar said. “Newspapers of the day are not what they were. Great newspapers, great titles carry a great deal of heritage with them but are mostly unable to replicate the achievements of their predecessors. The institution of the editor has been destroyed. It doesn’t matter anymore. And this process of dumbing down didn’t happen as a one-sided transaction. Somebody was dumbing down the media agenda, somebody was collaborating in being made dumber by the day.”
What are the consequences, Kumar asked. “We talk about the Arab Spring and social media lighting that spark of freedom. Let’s look at the places where we’ve already had that spark of freedom. Because that is where the process of the media cycle must be seen and understood. To say that Egypt has suddenly discovered the virtues of social media… tells only a small part of the story. What has it done to countries which already have freedom of expression? By several processes of reasoning what it ought to mean is, that countries that already have freedom of expression and a free press, the quality of media ought to have taken a quantum jump, whether it is the Western world or the US, or India because we have prided ourselves on having a free press. To the extent we do, there should have been an improvement in standards. And yet we are bemoaning the drop in standards. How do we explain this paradox?”
Kumar was convinced that just because there was a social media site, it did not mean that the information needs were met. “What we need to do is to arm ourselves with channels and avenues that are properly equipped to meet our needs. And that is our task as a responsible citizen and that is where engagement of people with media must come. There is a huge cost involved in collecting information. We try to give you a reasonable approximation of news as we can… and an honest a set of opinions as we can. This must be the challenge before any form of media. Honest news, or objective views, go for it… it doesn’t really matter whether it’s Facebook or Twitter. If the media of your choice gives you all this, there will be a cost involved. And if you want it, you will have to pay for it,” he said.
Picture: Prof B.K. Kuthiala, vice chancellor, Makhanlal Chaturvedi Rashtriya Patrakarita Evam Sanchar Vishwavidyalaya, Bhopal, lights the traditional lamp as (from left) Girija Shankar Sharma, head, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Agra; Prof M.R. Dua, former professor, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi; Prof V.L. Dharurkar, professor, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad; Ravindra Kumar, editor and managing director, The Statesman; Prof Sachchidananda Joshi, vice chancellor, Kushabhau Thakre Patrakarita Avam Jansanchar Vishwavidyalaya, Raipur (partly seen); Prof Tapati Basu, head, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Calcutta; yours truly; and Uma Shankar Pandey, head, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Surendranath College for Women, Kolkata and the seminar convener look on.